Answering Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in last week’s New York Review of Books is an important piece – important in the same way as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s 2006 screed “The Israeli Lobby:” It will be widely quoted and pernicious in effect.

Beinart begins with the results of focus groups conducted by pollster Frank Luntz with Jewish college students in 2003. In their discussions of Jewish identity, the subject of Israel never arose spontaneously, and when forced upon them, the students were careful to distinguish between themselves and Israelis. First and foremost, Luntz found, the students “reserve[d] the right to question the Israeli position.” Second, “they desperately want peace.” And third, “some empathize with the plight of the Palestinians.”

According to Beinart, those results constitute a damning indictment of the American Jewish establishment, which blindly supports Israel. Forced to choose between their Zionism and their liberalism, the students have — justifiably in Beinart’s view — checked their Zionism.

For Beinart, Israel’s history can be divided between a halcyon pre-1967 period, when an embattled Israel committed to social justice rightly commanded the love and support of Jews all around the world, and the present, in which an invincible Israel nevertheless remains rooted in a culture of victimhood and paranoia. Increasingly, in his account, Israel politics are determined by nationalistic Russian immigrants, primitive Sephardim, and Orthodox Jews of all types.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 1993 book A Place Among the Nations serves as Beinart’s prooftext for the characterization of modern Israel. Netanyahu is accused of equating Palestinian statehood with Nazism by referring to the 1949 armistice lines as “Auschwitz borders” and taken to task for denying the existence of a Palestinian national identity. Yet it was Abba Eban, a man firmly of the older Israeli Left, who coined the term “Auschwitz borders,” and Golda Meir, another veteran Labor Zionist, who first doubted Palestinian national identity.

News of Netanyahu’s acceptance of a two-state solution or of the significant territorial concessions made by successive Israeli governments since 1993, including one headed by Netanyahu, has apparently not reached Beinart.

The changes in Israeli attitudes since 1993 have not been driven primarily by demographics, but by events. Far from being opposed to peace, Israelis greeted the handshake on the White House lawn with almost messianic expectations of imminent peace. Only when the Oslo process blew up in their faces, time and again, did Israelis sour on it.

That Ehud Barak, who as prime minister offered Yasir Arafat virtually the entire West Bank at Camp David in 2000, serves harmoniously as Defense Minister in Netanyahu’s current government, surely says more about the sources of the present Israeli consensus, than the views of Effi Eitam, who has disappeared into political obscurity, which Beinart quotes at length.

BEINART’S INDICTMENT OF TODAY’S ISRAEL is a cartoonish pastiche, sure to turn off American Jewish students even more. His characterization draws only from the Left-fringe, Avrum Burg, Zev Sternhell (who once called on Palestinian terrorists to confine their killing of Jews to the other side of the Green Line), Yaron Ezrahi, and various European Community-financed “human rights” organizations.

Unwittingly, Beinart reveals the flaccidity of much contemporary liberalism, in particular its preference for airy, utopian abstractions – e.g., “skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights” – and an aversion to empirical inquiry and historical and social context.

Strikingly absent from Beinart’s off-putting portrait of contemporary Israel is any mention of recent history. Yet without that context no evaluation of the present Israeli consensus is possible. Palestinians are mentioned, if at all, only as helpless victims. The thousand Israelis killed in post-Oslo terrorist attacks, the more than 4,000 rockets fired at southern Israel after the Gaza withdrawal, the over 30,000 missiles amassed by Hizbullah are nowhere mentioned.

Beinart twice cites the belief that the Palestinians are “capable of peace” as a liberal article of faith. But the view that all people are more or less alike in their life goals is deeply flawed. For starters, it leaves no room for the influence of religion. But the Moslem belief that Jewish sovereignty over land once under Moslem rule constitutes sacrilege in need of redress prevents the acceptance of Israel’s existence, in any borders. Similarly, the theology of Iranian clerics that a massive conflagration will precede the return of the Hidden Imam makes a nuclear Iran so terrifying.

Unaffiliated American Jews may assume as a matter of faith, that the average Palestinian wants peace, as Beinart argues, but that does not make it so. A June 2009 poll by the Palestinian Center for Social Policy and Survey Research found that three-quarters of Palestinians do not believe reconciliation with Israel would be possible in this generation, even after the signing of a peace treaty and creation of a Palestinian state.

There has been no Palestinian education for peace. Since Oslo, both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have fostered a cult of martyrdom. Palestinian leaders fear they would pay with their lives were they to compromise on any traditional Palestinian demands. As Arafat explained in rejecting Barak’s Camp David offer, “You will not walk behind my coffin.”

PERHAPS BEINART’S SOUTH AFRICAN background leads him to press Israel’s Jews into a false template of dehumanizing Palestinians. He praises the late Tommy Lapid’s sympathy for an elderly Palestinian woman shown on Israel TV rummaging in the rubble of her house in Rafah for her medicines, as if such sympathy were rare. Yet it has never been hard to start a conversation on the plight of Palestinians in an Israeli café; Lapid’s sympathy was commonplace. But what must also be remembered is that the old woman’s house was not destroyed because she was a Palestinian, but because it harbored underground tunnels through which are smuggled deadly missiles aimed at Jews. In short, she was not Lapid’s grandmother, who was murdered by the Nazis.

Lifting a page from Norman Finkelstein, Beinart writes, “In the world of AIPAC, the Holocaust analogies never stop, and their message is always the same: Jews are licensed by their victimhood to worry only about themselves.” That accusation is both false and ugly. Every major hospital in Israel is filled with Israeli Arabs, and in many cases Palestinians, receiving topflight medical care. No other army forced to fight among civilians is so tethered by a battery of field lawyers as the IDF. Every other army in the world would have simply leveled from afar the booby-trapped house in the Jenin refugee camp in which 13 Jewish soldiers were killed in 2002.

TODAY’S JEWISH COLLEGE STUDENTS do not respond to Israel, according to Beinart, in part because they have no experience of Israel or Jews under mortal threat. Yet Israel faces greater threats to its existence than any other country in the world. Soon-to-be- nuclear Iran has expressed the desire to see Israel wiped off the map. Iran’s proxies, on Israel’s northern and southern borders, and its ally Syria possess tens of thousands of missiles capable of reaching every part of Israel. Just living under such threat imposes burdens no other people suffer.

No other country is subject to the same delegitimization, demonization, and double standards in a variety of international forums and from a host of human rights organizations. Beinart does not even mention the three D’s. Nor does he address the substantive critiques of the reports of the human rights organizations upon which he relies. It is enough, in his mind, that the HRO’s are “respected.” Yet Robert Bernstein, who founded and chaired Human Rights Watch for twenty years, accused the organization recently in The New York Times of aiding and abetting an agenda “to turn Israel into a pariah state.”

Let Beinart ask himself whether in today’s climate the first priority of American Jewry should be to add its voice to the choir of those condemning Israel.

About one thing, Beinart is certainly right: the Luntz focus groups reveal a crisis among college-age American Jews. But the problem is not their rejection of all forms of “group think;” it is their lazy adoption of the standard liberal group think with regard to Israel. The problem is not their sympathy for Palestinians in fetid refugee camps, but their unawareness that those camps came into existence only because of the Arab decision to seek Israel’s destruction in 1948. And they remain today only because of the ongoing decision of the Arab and Palestinian leadership to maintain them as a permanent breeding ground for terrorists.

The problem is not Jewish student’s desire for peace, but their failure to learn why peace has proven so difficult. (Beinart, incidentally, offers not one word on this subject.) It is not their skepticism about the efficacy of military force, but their failure to understand why Israel cannot yet beat its swords into ploughshares.

The ultimate failure of the American Jewish establishment lies in not providing young American Jews with a sufficient connection to their Judaism for them to be bothered to inform themselves about the fate of six million fellow Jews in Israel.

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2 Responses

  1. lacosta says:

    i didnt realize he is south african–which would explain the desire to avoid the apartheid pariah state status that israel is rapidly moving towards by world opinion, ch’v.
    i also didnt know he davens in an O synagogue, at least that’s what i read in the israel agonistes article by alterman in the Nation today…

  2. Ori says:

    Jonathan Rosenblum: About one thing, Beinart is certainly right: the Luntz focus groups reveal a crisis among college-age American Jews. But the problem is not their rejection of all forms of “group think;” it is their lazy adoption of the standard liberal group think with regard to Israel.

    Ori: You mean that people in their late teens and early twenties, with nearly zero experience in the real world, don’t know enough to have an opinion so they latch on to whatever people in authority they respect tell them? I’m shocked! Shocked! 😉 Students are so easy to mobilize for various “movements” precisely because they don’t know enough to make up their own minds.

    Seriously, what does a connection to Israel give a heterodox Jew in the US of college age, other than disagreements with most of his/her friends in college? What can it?

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